Burned badly by the liquid sun at the pool, Claire lies on her stomach in the camper’s loft bedroom with her T-shirt pulled up to expose her back to the circulating air. Her nose and cheeks burn, both with what the sun has done to her and with the chemically infused lotion she applied afterward from her grandmother’s toiletry bag—Rose Milk, the pink and smelly concoction pimped every week by Lawrence Welk on his show. It first felt cool going on, then stung, then relaxed into a long, slow smoldering-ember effect.
From up here, she has a command position as her grandfather barrels up Highway Five in the Chevy through green, green country—the open fields at Winters, the rich cut banks just before Redding, the alpine forest that make her sneeze over the pass, all ending without punctuation in the serpentine pygmy forest at Weed. Her blond boy cousins flank her—Todd on her left, David on her right—also apparently ignoring their own angry sunburns, which make the skin of their noses not just red but shiny, like ceramic. Or like the pink plastic fake amphora that the Rose Milk comes in.
And the name Weed is only funny because it means, well, weed. Like one of the creeping plants Grandpa sprays when they got too close to his tomatoes.
They count out-of-state license plates, racking up a huge count of Oregon of course (folks fleeing back to their own deeper shade of green), some Arizona and Nevada (folks needing to see any green at all), a couple of Texas (Todd and David whoop at this because their side of the family comes from there), and one New Mexico (Is that a state? nine-year-old David asks, to seven-year-old Claire’s assured nod and eye roll; she is the agreed-upon smart one). Eleven-year-old Todd is the first to spot New Hampshire “The Show Me State” and ask the obvious: What the heck are they doing here? But you don’t have to come from another state; LA is far enough, heck, the Central Valley with its oranges and olives and neglected plums is enough of a difference from here that the kids are pretty much entertained with the view the whole way, while Grandpa drives like sixty (really closer to 55) and Grandma crochets a new toilet-paper-roll cover shaped like a big-skirted southern bell down in the cab below them.
They see plenty of California Native bumper stickers shaped like license plates; and plenty of the ones saying “Welcome to California. Now go home.”
Where are they going? They are on their way to the next KOA. It is definitely KOA tonight, as last night they begged, cajoled, and pleaded with their grandparents to let them stay at a Motel 6 along the Five, instead of parking the camper, hooking up the lines, spending an evening getting to know yet another group of dust-streaked semi-feral camp kids. They would get to have their own bathroom! With their own toilet!
“Okay,” Grandma said, looking sideways at Grandpa, who was ready to stand firm on this issue and not waste the eighteen bucks at the motel. Hookup at the KOA cost less than five. “Okay, but we’re having beans on bread for dinner.”
“Okay! Yes! Yes!” all the kids yelled as they danced around her and Grandpa shook his head and went back to winching up the camper so he could back the pickup under it. David and Todd high-fived each other.
Let’s be clear: this was not rich, campfire-warmed beans ladled over toasted bread; this was beans straight from the can, smeared on soft, beige, generic bread. Like, bread from a bag that said “Bread,” smeared with beans from a can that said “Beans” (Okay, maybe the more specific “Pinto Beans”). If they were lucky, and they dared not ask if this was a real possibility, they might get a golden shard of Government Cheese on the side.
But hunger being the best sauce, and manipulation of grandparents being the finest spice, they relished their beans-on-bread (although really, Claire would have been happy with margarine only on hers). The kids insisted on eating in the motel room instead of at the camper’s kitchen table, so they sat on the carved mottled-brown motel carpet with their meal. Grandpa ate his silently, sitting on the one desk chair and staring out the motel window to the Chevy with the camper parked right out front, saying only “Thanks, Annie” when he had finished, rubbing his hands together to knock the crumbs off. The children watched him, not warily in the way of kids waiting for someone to blow, but sympathetically, knowing they had forced a person who loved them to do something he didn’t want to do.
Grandma and Grandpa were given the bed. Or they took it, as a matter of course, and none of the grandkids gave that situation one half a thought. Grandma brought pillows and a sheet with sprigs of spring flowers on it from the camper and spread them on the floor. Claire placed her little stuffed batik cat in the middle of her pillow, dutifully brushed her teeth when her grandmother reminded her. The kids all lay down on the sheet over the carpet covering the floor of that Motel 6 and slept the sleep, if not of the just, then of the well cared-for, which is better. They were two kings and a queen sleeping there.
And they got their money’s worth. After breakfast (Corn Flakes—the name-brand kind!—with reconstituted powdered milk) they hit the motel pool. David and Todd launched one cannon ball after another from the low but impressively springy fibreglass diving board, its rusted springs complaining every time. Claire stopped to watch in between her own underwater hand-stands and summersaults. There were back flips and forward rolls and a couple of belly flops, when the brothers would come to the top and do a dead-man’s float and then Claire would squeal when they suddenly revived and threw their heads back like blond ponies to shed the water from their hair. Then they would run up the ladder or hurl themselves over the pool’s abrasive side and go back for another trick. They played for each other; they played for themselves; no adult watched, unless you included the creepy old guy who stared from his second-floor window for about 15 minutes mid-morning before checkout time.
That was pretty much a given. There were dangers all around that Claire could feel in the pit of her stomach but that the magic of her cousins’ play kept at bay.
Still they stayed at the pool and they imagined Grandpa, who had nothing to do with his hands here, sitting and waiting patiently for their road trip to begin again. (Really he did try to busy himself checking the tire pressure and fluids on the truck and checking and re-checking the clamping mechanisms that held the camper on. He would not gas up the truck until they were all loaded in again and ready to roll, considering a preemptive round-trip to the gas station a waste of gas.)
Lunch was peanut butter and homemade plum jam on “Bread.” Grandma set this out with more watered-down powdered milk on the woodgrain formica table in the camper, which Grandpa had thoughtfully moved into the shade under a spreading sycamore at the end of the motel parking lot. They squeezed around the booth covered with vinyl the color of mustard and enjoyed their food. They really did enjoy it, unless you count the powdered milk that tasted like duty but that they all knew to drink up without being told even once.
Their skin did not hurt yet but was already an ominous pink, and if you pressed it a white ghost of your fingertips stayed for just a second.
So now here they are again flying down the highway, up on the burning bed. All the little sliding windows are open and the warm summer air buffets around them and rattles the door on its aluminum hinge and doesn’t cool them so much as distract them from the heat, from the distress of the thin and fragile covering that separates what is in them from the rest of the world. Their skins are only a suggestion, really, only the symbol of some kind of wholeness; for what are they without the sustenance of cold-beans-on-bread, of penitential powdered milk, of jam like manna from heaven? They would be nothing for very long, which is something they perhaps suspect but don’t yet know, although the man watching from the window right before checkout time—of course he knows.
Burned by the sun. For all they know, they are only burned by the sun.
And so perhaps you think that man is going to come back. But no, he checked out quietly at 11:05 AM and packed a single hand grip into the trunk of his Camaro and took off south. Claire never sees that particular man again.
What happens is this. That afternoon around 4:00 they get to the next KOA, over the Oregon line. White Man’s Country. All the camp kids have sunburns like theirs, smeared over with dirt and ice cream drippings. The kids beg Grandma for change for the ice cream machine and she gives them some. “My pin money,” she tells them with a wink. Her TP cover like Scarlett O’Hara is almost finished, down to the bottom ruffle on her Antebellum skirt, and Grandma sits in the deep shade of a cedar tree on a folding chair, her crochet hook moving in her hand as regularly as a machine. Yarn-over yarn-over hook pull halfway yarn-over hook pull.
The kids run off to get their ice cream and come back red and smeared like the rest. By now another lady has joined Grandma in the cedar-scented shade with some knitting. The yarn looks hot and scratchy to Claire, but there they sit, hands working automatically while they chat. “We meet every Wednesday, and Sunday after the service,” the lady is saying as Grandma nods, not making any promises. “It’s all just folks, nothing fancy.”
Grandma looks up at them. “You better go wash in the pool before Grandpa sees that ice cream sticking all over your face.”
“You said it was your pin money.”
“That’s just a manner of speaking. It all comes from the same pot.”
“But does Grandpa really mind?”
“He minds it all, he has to.”
They head to the camper to change into their suits, come to think of it looking forward to feeling the cool, chlorinated water slip over their skins. But just as they get to the squeaky door Grandpa rounds the front bumper of the truck, glances their way and gives a quick shake of the head. They think it’s about their ice-cream faces but no. “You kids wait. That front right tire is not holding air too good and I need to take the truck into town and get a new one. Already used the spare on the left.” He walks over to the two ladies in the shade. “Annie, come spot me.” He needs to take the camper off the truck bed. “You boys, other side.”
They jack up all four corners, Grandpa finishing the two on his side in the time it takes the boys to finish each of theirs. Grandma stands chatting with the new church lady while Grandpa climbs into the cab and starts the engine with that high-pitched sound of metal-on-metal it always makes.
It must be the imbalance on the tires. But why would the clutch work different then? Or the dry duff under the wheels, and the fact that most of the weight had been on the back of the truck and now sprang forward and onto the bad tire. As Grandpa eases on the gas, like he has a hundred times before, the tire blows; the truck takes a lurch and makes a little shimmy and just grazes the one rear jack closest to David, and later Grandpa could swear he checked that all four were locked, but that one gives and the corner of the camper shudders and starts to lurch toward David’s head and it’s crazy but it is something you wouldn’t even think about doing in that situation: Grandma reaches out her hand to try to catch it. And it doesn’t hit David’s head, that part is fine, but the gate of the truck is still right there underneath and the corner of the camper perfectly pins Grandma’s hand as it comes to rest there.
For one suspended moment they all stand there. Grandma’s face is the color of generic bread. Then the church lady gives out a wail and yells “Sir, sir! Your wife is pinned. Your wife is pinned!”
Still the children stand, tacked to the spot. Grandma doesn’t speak, her mouth and eyes basted closed. And what can Grandpa do? He springs from the cab and runs around the back and quick as he can, but way too slow, begins working the jack again, grimacing and saying “Work, durn it!” which is the most swearing they have ever heard from him.
And then the church lady starts singing:
There's a highway up in heaven and the streets are all pure gold
There'll be shouting there forever in the homeland of the soul
I shall meet with all my loved ones and the saints gone on before
On that highway up in heaven on that peaceful golden shore
Oh, I'll walk down heavens highway some sweet day
And I know I'll hear my blessed savior say
Welcome to your home in heaven that I have prepared for you
For your cares and worries now on earth are through

“Sing with me, kids! Sing with me, Annie!”
And they sing the chorus over, the kids stumbling a beat behind the two women. By the time the chorus ends, Grandma is singing the loudest. The church lady still holds her knitting in her left hand, Grandma’s free hand in her right. When the camper gets winched up enough and the trapped hand goes free, the church lady gasps and quick wraps her knitting—a pink cotton baby blanket from the looks of it—around the hand. Claire’s view is blocked but her cousins tell her later it was the left-hand pointer finger, the yarn-over finger, that had been crushed.
Now Grandma’s face has blood in it again, and she is breathing hard. “It hurts, Vern, Lord it hurts!”
The boys glance at each other and scratch the dirt with their toes over Grandma’s taking the Lord’s name in vain, but the church lady seems unfazed. “My Fife will take you to town in the Buick,” she says. “They’ll patch you up real good there.”
“Ice!” Grandpa shouts now. At that the kids run to the cooler where they keep the Government Cheese. (Grandma would diligently replace the ice in it each time they stopped at the KOA.) Each of them grabs a handful and runs to Grandpa, who unwraps the pink knitting without a word or a grimace and matter-of-factly packs ice around Grandma’s finger while the kids stand around in a circle. There is blood but not too much. “Crushing injury,” the doctor later explains. “Not as much blood flow.”

And the church lady was right, he does patch her up pretty good, and when they get home to LA there isn’t any more that the doctors can do, and now that finger is frozen at the perfect angle for crochet, and Grandma’s tension and gauge have never been better, she says, and she is finally able to finish the Southern Belle’s skirt.

1 comment:

  1. Very nice.
    Also I'm going to have beans on toast for dinner.


Recently, my essay "The Yurt at the Edge of the Sea" was featured in a sidebar in Gary Shteyngart's craft piece "Three S...